Night of the Triffids
By Gil Hale – email@example.com
Disclaimer: All usual disclaimers apply.
Author’s Notes: Themefic for the SentinelAngst List, for Judy who says: “I want crossovers… any crossover is acceptable, but I want to challenge ya’ll to come up with something new!” This is a sequel of sorts to Arnaud You Don’t.
Simon Banks familiar shout of “Ellison! Sandburg! My office!” had been followed by some pretty varied assignments”but never before with the question, “Right. How would you two like a trip to a tropical island?”
Too good to be true, Jim thought, with the cynicism that he blamed on experience.
“You’ve been invited along by the Feds,” Simon went on.
Jim mentally scored one for cynicism and let Blair ask the questions. Rather like he let the wind blow and the rain fall…
“What island, Simon? Pacific? And what Feds come to that? Why us? Do you mean they asked for us specifically? That could mean…”
Simon made a quelling motion with one hand in order to get a word in edgeways. It had no effect at all until he followed it up with a bellow that made Jim glad he’d dialled his hearing down in anticipation. “Sandburg! Do you mind if I actually speak at this briefing?”
“What Feds?” Jim asked in the silence that briefly followed. It seemed to him the key question.
“Well, the request has come by a slightly convoluted route, but the names of the agents you’ll be working with are Fawkes and Hobbes. Weren’t they the ones who were here chasing that guy who tried to pose as Sandburg? I remember their rusty van. I thought they were from Fish and Game, though and this says something about Indian Affairs.”
“They’ve moved,” Blair said, accidentally giving the impression that he thought this might be a deduction too far for Simon.
“They’re a tiny agency,” Jim said hastily. “It’s just a question of what Bureau the money comes through. They’re not doing anything different.”
Blair, who was good at that sort of thing, had not only kept in touch on both their behalves but had actually managed to arrange to visit – especially so he could detail his deductions about Arnaud to their pretty British scientist. She’d seemed to Jim more impressed by Blair’s research than his charms, but Blair was nothing if not optimistic in those situations.
“It looks more like a connection with Fish and Game,” Simon said, looking at the folder in front of him. “Some query over the wildlife or experiments on wildlife on an island near Hawaii. Tiny place. It doesn’t seem to have a name. It was a very low key inquiry at first.”
“But?” Jim prompted. He could always tell when Simon was getting to a ‘but’, especially if it was one they weren’t going to like.
“The guy who went over to investigate didn’t check in, and when someone looked for him they found him dead on the beach. Now, it may not have been a crime—he hadn’t been shot. The post mortem showed some kind of toxin, and there was a mark of a sting or bite on his face. But the toxin wasn’t from any known poisonous species, so the Feds have a bigger question mark over the place now. Hobbes and Fawkes have had some previous contact with an organisation that’s done some weird genetic stuff apparently, so they were the choice for the next team to send in.”
“And they asked for us to hold their hands?” Jim still couldn’t see his own connection in this scenario.
“No. They asked for you because of that business at Rainier with the experimental farm where they did genetic engineering.”
“The spiders,” Blair said, with a shudder that Jim could feel ripple the air.
“One of the lab assistants who turned state evidence in the case—a Jaron Howell—disappeared while he was on probation, and his name showed up in connection with this.”
“They think someone’s engineered a killer spider on this island?” Jim said with disbelief. “Aren’t there enough deadly ones already? And anyway, I’d have reservations about a weapon that can be flattened with the heel of a shoe.”
“Don’t ask me. They seem to think some sort of experiments are going on, or have been going on, it doesn’t say spiders.”
“The island of Dr Moreau!” Blair said, so suddenly it made them both jump. “You know—it’s a classic. An island near Hawaii where a crazy scientist was making chimera—beast men.”
“This would be a fictional story, right?” Simon asked.
“Yes, yes, but it was H.G.Wells. I mean, he usually had something he based his stories on, and he knew scientists all over the world. Maybe there really were weird experiments being done on one of the Pacific Islands and someone’s picked up on it.”
Jim could see this excursion into the Sandburg zone was having its usual effect on Simon’s blood pressure.
“So what happened to the scientist?” he asked.
“I think the creatures he’d been experimenting on killed him.”
“The lab rats bite back. You want to take warning, Chief.”
“It was just a story,” Blair said. “But wouldn’t it be cool if this was the same island, and the group Darien and Bobby are after wanted to see what experiments had been done there and do some of their own.”
“Creating a spider-man killer?”
“Well, no. But it might explain why someone would choose an island for genetic research rather than a convenient lab.”
“So would their employment policy if they’re using people like Howell,” Jim said. “Anyway, no doubt we’ll get the rest of the story from Fawkes and Hobbes.”
“And you’d think with a scientific assignment like this, they’d definitely bring Claire along,” Blair said, his enthusiasm moving up a notch.
“Take him away, Jim,” Simon said wearily. “And if he gets swallowed up by a spider woman with eight talented legs, you have to write the report.”
Blair’s hopes about Claire were partially realised. Claire came—but only as far as Hawaii where she planned to work on the tissue samples taken from the dead agent. The toxin that had killed him still hadn’t been identified.
It turned out that she knew one of the doctors at the foremost hospital for research, and he’d arranged a tiny lab for her—and a pleasant round of social engagements. Jim, Blair, Darien and Bobby Hobbes, by contrast, got a night in army accommodation and an early helicopter flight to the unnamed island they were to investigate.
“Can you believe that guy,” Blair complained, slinging his rucksack onto a bunk. “Claire this, Claire that, let me arrange your life for you Claire, oh and we’ll just get rid of your friends.”
“He didn’t make these arrangements,” Jim said mildly. “This is just some federal economy drive.”
“Story of our lives,” Darien agreed. “Think yourself lucky we’ve got a helicopter not a canoe.”
Bobby Hobbes, like Blair, had his mind more on Claire than their surroundings. “Did we check that doctor out? Did anyone think of that? I don’t like the way he was so keen to get her on her own. I mean, what do we actually know about him?”
“That he’s known Claire since they were at college,” Jim pointed out mildly.
“That Claire’s a big girl and can look after herself,” Darien offered. He sounded to Jim as if he’d been about as successful as Blair in trying to date his Keeper.
“Just an evening out with an old friend, right,” Hobbes said, trying the idea for size. “They’re probably going to chat about science.”
Jim saw Blair about to explain that this wasn’t the only thing that happened when two academics spent an evening together. He shook his head at him hastily. Blair visibly caught on to where Jim was coming from—an evening without Claire was mildly regrettable; an evening of Bobby Hobbes in full blown paranoia on the subject was definitely to be avoided. Adroitly he shifted gear. “Anyway, the rest of us can still have an evening out. What about the luau?”
“No,” Jim and Bobby Hobbes said simultaneously. Jim’s headache from the travelling wasn’t up to pounding drums or—sadly—exotic dancers. “We’d never get tickets,” he said, which sounded more practical and less whiny.
“Anyway, I’ve all the material here for a proper briefing,” Hobbes said, producing documents. “You hardly got an outline before.”
Darien muttered something to Blair under his breath about the older generation, and added more loudly, “Why don’t you and Jim go through the details, and we’ll just do as we’re told tomorrow. I don’t see passing up on the opportunity of seeing Hawaii at the Agency’s expense.”
“What kind of trouble could anyone get into at a luau?” Blair added. “Come on, Jim. Can’t you just hear those drums calling?”
Jim winced at the thought. His brain, running these last two remarks past a well-honed sense of sidekick-protection, shot up warning flags at ‘we’ll do as we’re told’ and ‘what kind of trouble’.
“No,” he said again, and once more coordinated perfectly with Bobby Hobbes.
Unfortunately this display of united judgment and firmness was immediately undermined by a call from Claire, who said that she and doctor friend were going to the luau, could get a couple of spare tickets, and would pick up anyone who’d like to go. Jim knew this lost him the argument. Bobby would never turn down such a golden opportunity of having Claire chaperoned for the evening. On the other hand, she was a sensible girl, and stood no nonsense, so could be considered an adequate sidekick-sitter. He gave in gracefully.
Claire carried Darien and Blair off with a smile and a promise, “Don’t worry. I’ll see they behave. Bobby, Jim—maybe when you all get back…?”
Jim was secretly convinced she preferred the more muscle, less hair look, and going by his slightly besotted gaze, so was Bobby. “We’ll look forward to it,” Jim said, and meant it. For tonight though, he remained simply grateful not to have to go near those drums.
Bobby Hobbes began to spread maps, files and what looked like a pathologist’s fantasy photo collection all over the bunks and every available flat space. Jim picked up one of the prints. It was a skull, not human, with an assortment of bones.
“That was some stuff Kimmerman—the agent who was killed—had collected,” Hobbes said. “He was there for nearly a week before whatever happened to him.”
“Something special about the bones?”
“If you’re a boffin. They’re old, according to Claire—getting on for a hundred years. Apparently they’re proof that some sort of weird experiments were going on there long ago. Those are some kind of hybrid or something that no one knew they could engineer back then. From our point of view, it shows that the guys we’re after may have thought there was something interesting to find on the place—the bones themselves, living descendants of something—though Claire says that’s unlikely—maybe records.”
“Good thing Blair’s not here,” Jim said. “He was already calling it the island of Dr Moreau.”
“Yeah? Claire said something about the guy too, but I looked him up on our data base and he doesn’t show.”
He handed Jim a map, annotated by Kimmerman. “He found a few traces of recent activity, but no definite links to the Chrysalis team we thought had gone there.”
Jim tried to recall the names. “Howell, who we came across at Rainier, Reiss and Henrik?”
“Those are the three we knew of—you can see the intell, you’ve got clearance. We can trace them pretty well to landing on the island.” He handed over more photos, this time of the island. “This is the most obvious landing place. That concrete emplacement dates back to the war, but the full oil drums in it are newer and we’ve no records of more recent military use.”
“Howell and the others landed by boat rather than chopper?”
“We think so. It makes sense. Less likely to attract attention, and anyway quite a few parts of the island would be easier to access by boat.”
“We have one?”
“Outboard powered inflatable. Kimmerman’s was still on the beach when they found him, so we’ll use that.”
“No sign he’d tried to get off in a hurry?”
“Nothing at all. No hint of an attack, human or animal. He seems to have been studying the smaller marine life when he died.”
Jim found the photocopies of Kimmerman’s notes. They didn’t suggest he’d felt threatened by anything, least of all the wildlife. He’d found no creatures alive on the island at all. Perhaps that’s why he’d become so interested in the bones.
“He’s written that even birds seem to avoid the place,” Jim said, feeling a prickle of unease.
“No sign of toxins in the environment though,” Hobbes said, “and he thought the sea life was normal, so far as he’d got with the study.”
“These islands normally have small mammals, pigs, lots of bird life.”
“It says somewhere that there were pig bones.”
Jim didn’t find that encouraging. “No sign of what killed them, I suppose.”
Hobbes shook his head. “You think it might have been whatever killed Kimmerman?”
“Dead body, unknown toxin, island devoid of life. Does that seem promising to you?”
“Like I said, he was there a week before he had any problems,” Hobbes said. “And according to Claire, any poisonous insect or reptile on a scale to wipe out other species on the island would have to be present in huge quantities. Kimmerman hadn’t come across reptiles on the land, and he hadn’t noticed anything unusual in the insect life.”
“The work he was doing on the beach he’d have been doing in daylight. We’ve got a first aid kit with every kind of known anti-toxin, plus some other fancy stuff, and there are four of us. Kimmerman may just have passed out before he could call for help.”
“We’d better make a rule no one goes anywhere alone, then,” Jim said. He really didn’t like enemies you couldn’t see or predict. Of course, Blair would probably say his senses were their best protection in the circumstances, an early warning system that no technology could match, whether Kimmerman had somehow been murdered or had died from some weird natural cause.
“Yeah. We stay together.”
Maybe Bobby Hobbes felt the same way as Jim: if there was anything unpleasant lurking on the island, he’d just bet their partners would show a talent for finding it.
Jim slept badly. Some of this could be down to the bunks—he tried dialling his sense of touch down, but that made him liable to roll out. Quite a lot of it could be blamed on Blair and Darien who rolled in very late, doing impromptu bits of dance and showing a tendency to drum strange rhythms on the metal bunk frames. But mostly the problem was that Jim was, well, not of course nervous or superstitious or anything like that, but rationally concerned about the island.
His perfectly reasonable sense of unease heightened as the chopper left them there the next morning, standing on a beach of white sand that was quite beautiful and lapped by clear inviting sea. There was something wrong with this place, and the attractive surface only made him feel more like someone being lured into a trap. He even found himself looking with approval at the assortment of weaponry Bobby Hobbes had thought it appropriate to bring, and that certainly hadn’t been on their official list.
“I know a guy on Hawaii,” Hobbes said, checking his crate. It was misleadingly stencilled ‘Scientific Equipment. Fragile.’ There was nothing fragile looking about the backpack flamethrower and the aging grenade launcher that were his star items.
Darien looked at the sea, the lush vegetation, the general peace around them. “We’re going to blow up some fish and sear them nicely for dinner?”
“I like to be prepared,” Hobbes said.
“But what’s going to burn?” Blair asked.
“If this fires at it, anything! Now give me a hand and we’ll store it all safely away.”
Safe, in Jim’s book, meant carrying out the drums of fuel from the concrete store before the crate with the flamethrower went in. Grumbling, and without beating any happy rhythms on the containers, Darien and Blair helped, and the weaponry and their other belongings were moved inside.
“Now what?” Darien said. “I’m not digging defensive earthworks. In fact, I’m not even going to make a sandcastle. Let’s go and cool off.”
Blair also looked longingly at the water. Jim checked it out, for the second time since he’d arrived. It looked and smelt exactly like the sea off Hawaii; there was protection from a partly formed reef. He was going to look as paranoid as Hobbes if he didn’t let Blair put his feet in it…
Luckily, he didn’t have to make the decision. “This isn’t a picnic,” Bobby Hobbes said, scandalised at the thought of two of his team getting involved in such idle pursuits. “We’re here to do a job, remember. We need to make sure Chrysalis aren’t up to something on this island, and we want to know what happened to Kimmerson.”
“Jim could search the island for quite a distance from here,” Blair said, turning reluctantly away from the sea. “You can listen for heartbeats, Jim, or anyone talking, or any sort of unusual activity.”
Jim sighed, but at least the sense of being a human freak was muted when he was on assignment with a guy who could bend light around himself because someone had stuck a weird gland in his head. Anyway, he’d like to be sure no one—and nothing—was close at hand.
Five minutes later he hadn’t found a single heartbeat but their own in all the areas he searched.
“Whoa, that is weird,” Blair said. “Nothing at all?”
“Nothing bigger than a fly, and there aren’t many of those,” Jim said shortly. “Apart from us and the plants, there’s nothing alive for a long, long way.”
“Welcome to the island of death,” Darien said, adopting the tone of cheap sci-fi melodrama.
They explored inward toward the centre of the island that afternoon, but the tangle of vegetation made movement slow and difficult, They found a few more bones, all old enough to have been picked clean, and a stream of clear water originating up in some cleft in the basalt, but nothing moved from their approach, or threatened them, or pulsed with any sort of audible life.
In the evening they made a fire in spite of the heat, and Jim and Bobby didn’t even have to talk about it to agree they’d set a watch for the night. They quelled most of the complaints by giving Darien the first slot and Blair the last.
When it was his turn, Jim let his hearing range far and wide across the island, secure in the knowledge that the loudest unexpected noise he was likely to hear was a snore. He heard the sound of water, the whisper of plants in some slight breeze and nothing else at all.
The weather forecast was good for the next couple of days, with storms predicted after that, so the following morning they took the boat out and made an immediate start on exploring other possible landing places around the island. They went south east quite close in to the shoreline, but although they found places where they could land, there was nowhere that showed recent signs of activity, or where it was really possible to get into the interior.
On one beach, where a stream came down to the sea, they found an old sign stuck up on a piece of driftwood. None of them exactly understood the symbols on it, and maybe as Blair suggested it was nothing more than some warning against landing. The warning idea, Jim agreed with, but he’d like to know what he was being cautioned about. Was the island known to the local people to be dangerous? So dangerous it was unsafe even to land for water? If so, they were still finding no hint as to why.
The day was long and hot and unproductive. In the face of a complete and utter lack of any threat from the water, they didn’t manage to keep Blair and Darien out of the sea that evening. Jim thought their enjoyment of the swim was probably impaired, though, by the fact that he stood guard with every sense trained on the water, and Bobby Hobbes (really remarkably well prepared) stood next to him with some kind of harpoon gun.
Blair came out shaking water from his hair. “Jim—it’s just perfect in there. Relax. Kimmerson wasn’t in the water when he was killed. We’re probably safer in the sea than on the land.”
Jim watched the drops fly though the air, each one clear and sparkling, but didn’t ease his vigilance. Somewhere on this island was whatever had killed a perfectly healthy agent so quickly he didn’t even have time to radio for help.
On his watch that night, he listened even more intently for some sound, some hint of what there could be here that was out of the ordinary. All he found was that the vegetation seemed to be rustling more than was natural on a still hot night. He stretched out his hearing, briefly sure something was there, but there was no heartbeat in the darkness. He didn’t wake Blair up to take his watch, though. He felt too alert and uneasy to sleep, and was glad when morning came.
They’d decided this time to go the other way around the island, though the map showed fewer small beaches and inlets to the north west. It looked less promising as they watched the shoreline. The tangle of vegetation came right down to the sea in many places. But around one jutting patch of fallen rocks, there was a small beach and for the first time since they had arrived, Jim’s senses found something that didn’t belong on the island.
“Jim?” Blair asked softly. He was as alert to the nuances in Jim’s reactions as Jim himself was to the island.
“I can smell fuel… and metal,” he said, focussing in. “Quite strong…”
He turned back towards the rocks, which made something of a tiny natural harbour. Darien, in the bows, said quickly, “There is something there. I think those creepers have been pulled down over it.”
“Wait!” Hobbes said sharply, as Darien got ready jump onto the rocks. “Whatever it is could be booby trapped.”
“I don’t think so,” Darien said, obeying orders about as well as Blair. He jumped, and pulled back some of the spreading greenery. “It’s their boat. What kind of idiot booby traps their own boat?”
“You’d be surprised, my friend,” Bobby muttered darkly, but by then Darien was clearing a space, and they could all see the small motor boat.
The sense of unease that was now Jim’s constant companion grew as he realised this was—admittedly on a very small scale—something of a Marie Celeste. “They were planning to come back to this,” he said, looking at the lab materials and specimen boxes, the containers of bottled water, a pair of canvas shoes.
“They aren’t up there now?” Blair asked.
The boat smelled to Jim as if no one had been in it for a while, but he listened carefully anyway. There was a stream flowing down a cleft in the rock, and if anyone had gone inland that might have provided a route. He followed the water up into the undergrowth.
“I can hear flies,” he said. Even that was unusual enough to be worth comment.
“And what do you get flies around,” Hobbes said slowly.
Jim let his sense of smell, still at an acute level from checking out the boat, follow his hearing. He shivered suddenly in the heat, as it met an unmistakeable scent of decay.
He nodded to Hobbes. “You’re right,” he said. “There’s something dead up there.”
Hobbes accepted his judgment without question, quickly tying the dinghy to the back of the motor boat.
“The flame thrower would have been useful…”
The popular vote had been against anyone tinkering with the flame thrower in an inflatable dinghy.
“It would have cleared the way up there,” Hobbes added reproachfully. “And it’s not like you have to hit anything vital with fire—plants, insects, weird animals, whatever, it’s all going to be reduced to carbon.”
“Poor man’s structuralism,” Blair murmured incomprehensibly. “Jim, is anything else up there beside the flies?”
“I can’t hear anything. Just the plants moving.”
But there still wasn’t any wind…
They moved off, all four of them. Jim had been tempted to suggest that Blair and Darien should guard the boat, but with such an indefinite threat he wasn’t sure whether that would really be any safer. If, for instance, the danger was some kind of flying insect with a lethal sting, which was his most plausible guess, the thing could be anywhere. Besides, ordering Blair to stay put had results about as reliable as sculpting jello.
“Stay behind us,” Hobbes told the two younger men. “I’ll take point.”
“I’ll take point,” Jim said politely.
Hobbes had grenades, but he had the senses. The ensuing argument was eloquent, but curtailed by unreasonable amusement in the ranks. They compromised. Jim led the way, since he was the one who knew the right direction, but Hobbes took point in a more military sense, ready to deal with any unexpected threat.
It was easier than it looked to climb up the route of the stream, and Jim found small signs that someone had been that way before. The air was stiller and hotter than ever, though, and sweat trickled down his neck and soaked his shirt as he climbed. It took maybe twenty minutes to get to the small buzzing cloud of flies.
The body had been there a while, but not as long as it should have been; Jim’s estimate was that decomposition hadn’t been going on for much more than a week.
“This guy must have been alive when Kimmerman was on the island,” he said, scanning the body for any sign of the cause of death. It lay sprawled in the vegetation, face down, arms flung outwards towards the shore. It looked as if the man might have been trying to scramble back towards his boat and escape when he died.
“There should have been three of them,” Hobbes said quietly, checking the corpse’s pockets for ID.
“Jim!” Blair said quickly, clambering a few steps further up on the wet rock. “There’s something here.”
Blair pushed the plants aside a little, recoiled abruptly as a desiccated arm flopped towards him, slipped and fell backwards.
It probably saved his life.
Something whipped through the air over Blair’s head. Jim didn’t know what it was, but it had been aimed with malevolence and he hauled Blair quickly down towards them out of reach.
“Now what the hell is that?” Darien said.
Above where the second corpse was lying, the top of a strange plant swayed, and a long tendril lashed out again, but was too far above them to reach. It had to be some kind of sting. Jim backed hastily a few more steps, supporting Blair.
“You okay, Chief?”
“Twisted my knee,” Blair said, trying to get his balance, and grunting with discomfort. “Jim! It’s moving!”
The strange plant, at least as tall as Jim, seemed to lurch forward. Bobby Hobbes pushed Jim out of the way, and fired repeatedly into its thick stem. With another lurch the plant swayed back. Jim heard that characteristic rustling that had been bothering him during the night. The plant was oozing a stinking sap now, and it moved another lurch back, slow and clumsy but a movement no plant should have been able to achieve.
“It’s walking!” Blair said, his voice rising with astonishment and alarm.
“And I don’t think Bobby hit anything vital,” Darien said, as the plant halted again, and the stinging lash twitched. “Guess it doesn’t have a heart.”
“Stand back,” Hobbes said quickly, pushing around them. He had a grenade in his hand, and before anyone could object, he’d lobbed it at the undergrowth around the plant’s roots.
Jim pulled Blair quickly down, soaking them both in the stream. Darien and Hobbes flattened themselves beside them, and then the explosion blew leaves and dirt, rocks and quantities of sticky disgusting sap into the air.
Something smelt like the inside of a thousand Venus fly traps.
“Was that really necessary?” Darien muttered, brushing with revulsion at the drips of slime that had fallen on him. “And how do we know this stuff isn’t poisonous?”
It was a good question. They all hastily rinsed off the results of Hobbes’ maximum force. The smell in the air remained.
Abruptly Blair said, “Jim… it was feeding on the guy. That’s why this sap stinks. It was sucking him dry! Its roots must have been right inside him!”
Jim would never have made that leap of thought, but as soon as Blair said it, he believed it. He moved cautiously forward, Bobby Hobbes’ immediately at his side, and they pulled the corpse from the shattered undergrowth.
It was a shrivelled husk and something like root hairs still stuck to the mess that had been its torso.
“Pushing up daisies,” Darien muttered, but his breathing was as unsteady as Blair’s.
“We ought to get the bodies back down to the beach,” Hobbes said.
“Do you think there are any more of those plants?” Blair asked.
Jim, who’d dialled down his hearing when Hobbes threw the grenade, dialled it up again. Above them on the slope, he could still hear that curious rustling, and it came from several directions at once. Above it, hitting some high pitch that was probably inaudible to normal human hearing, was a weird ululating sound. It added up to trouble.
“Leave the bodies. Let’s get back to the boats now!” he said urgently.
The others looked at him, saw his expression and turned to move. Twenty minutes, Jim thought. It had taken them at least twenty minutes to reach this point, but that had been uphill. They had to be faster going down, even over the treacherous footholds, even with Blair stumbling uncomfortably along on a crocked knee.
A glance behind showed him a swaying line of feathery fronds converging above them where the slope flattened out. The movement of the plants looked slow and cumbersome, but it hadn’t taken them long to cover the ground to that point. Three or four of the waddling trunks lurched into the cleft where the stream ran, holding to the jagged sides with stabilising roots. The others began to spread out more widely.
“They’re thinking,” Blair whispered, half horrified, half fascinated.
“They’re hunting,” Jim said.
Before the plants could spread out any further, Hobbes lobbed a second grenade, and nobody thought of protesting, even when the air filled with vile droplets of fluid again and stank like a charnel house.
It bought them time—some time, anyway. The high pitched whine grew agitated and for a few minutes the rustling stopped. They could glimpse the sea before Hobbes, bringing up the rear, panted out a warning.
The gully went down steeply here. Jim glanced back and saw the tall plants loom above them on both sides of the stream bed. Bobby Hobbes flung his last grenade, but to Jim’s astonishment and dismay the plants were somehow learning. Tendrils from several lashed out, and the grenade was whipped away to one side where it did only limited damage.
Jim and Bobby Hobbes started firing, somehow managing to keep their footing as they backed slowly down the last stretch to the beach. Darien had taken over helping Blair. Jim could hear them several meters below him, panting and stumbling but making steady progress.
“Fire at the roots,” Hobbes said suddenly. “The sticking out bits. I don’t think they can move so well without them.”
Jim had noticed that as well as more normal-looking roots, the strange plants seemed to be supported on more rigid ones, which reminded him, on a much smaller scale, of the buttress roots on a baobab. They could be important to the way the plants moved…
He and Hobbes fired simultaneously, and one plant lurched sideways while another rocked back and settled on the ground, unmoving.
“Works for me,” Jim said, backing another step and choosing his next target. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that three of the plants had moved out onto the slope above where Blair and Darien were scrambling down. They were too high above for their stings to reach, but he fired at them anyway.
When they sank down and extended their thinner more flexible roots into the ground, he thought he’d immobilised them. Perhaps he had, but as his ears picked up the grating of root through rock, he realised what else they were trying to do.
“Look out above you!” he shouted to Blair, just as the first chunks of fractured rock began to slide.
Maybe this was how the first landslip had happened.
Darien tried to help Blair to move out of the way, but a chunk of basalt caught him off balance and he stumbled and lost his grip. Blair tried to step aside, but his knee wasn’t up to the movement. It gave way just as a stream of plant debris, earth and rock hurtled down around his feet.
Jim was moving, but was too late to catch him. Blair went headlong and stayed down. Jim fired again at the plants as he jumped recklessly down the last few steps to where Darien was trying to help Blair up.
“He knocked his head,” Darien said. “If you’re okay with him, I’ll go ahead and get the boat unfastened.” They didn’t need to look back at the plants to know how urgent their situation was becoming.
Jim lifted Blair to his feet and steadied him, while Darien reached the sand and ran for the boats with long-legged strides. Jim tried to get Blair balanced, and saw with concern his dazed look and the bleeding lump on his forehead. When he touched Blair’s arm, he heard his respiration and heartbeat rocket, and knew there was more damage there.
“I’m okay,” Blair said unsteadily. “Let’s go, Jim. I’ll worry about what hurts when I know I’m not going to be some kind of human miracle-gro fertiliser.”
Jim half-carried him the last few steps to the sand, while Bobby Hobbes covered their retreat and jumped a second tumbling rockslide. The plants were still out of stinging range and once Jim was on the beach he could help Blair move faster.
Ahead, Darien jumped up onto the motor boat to reach the dinghy bobbing behind it. In the vines above the rocks where it was moored, Jim heard a characteristic rustle.
He and Bobby Hobbes shouted their warnings together, but Darien must have seen or sensed the movement for himself. As they both yelled, he disappeared from view, and the lashing sting that flung out from under the cover of the other plants smacked against invisibility.
Hobbes, who’d reloaded as he ran across the sand, fired the whole clip into the fronded top of the plant. They couldn’t see Darien, and now the motorboat disappeared as well and part of the rocks. If the quicksilver was still pouring out did that mean he was alive?
“Jim—you’re the only one who can see him,” Blair said, pulling free. “Leave me. Bobby can help me.”
Jim eased him down to the sand and dialled up his sight until the light burned. Faint shapes shimmered beneath a surface of bent light. He pulled Darien, still invisible, from the motor boat. Bobby Hobbes, his face agonized with concern for his partner, was giving Blair sturdy support through the water direct to their dinghy. Jim waded after them. His arms were chilled and invisible but the quicksilver had stopped spreading, and he could feel shallow breathing lift Darien’s chest as he carried him.
“He’s alive,” he told Hobbes quickly as they reached the dinghy and scrambled in. Blair lay against the side, panting painfully. Jim eased Darien down, an invisible lump propped against Blair, and slashed the rope that held them to the motor boat. The outboard roared to life under Bobby’s hand, and they were moving, and out on the water, and safe.
Jim drew a deep breath, and reached to nothingness to check that Darien was still breathing. As he did so, though, with a suddenness as startling as his disappearance had been, Darien shivered back into visibility, leaving a shower of glinting flakes in the bottom of the boat. He was still unconscious. Jim had no idea how he controlled the gland in that state, or if it just obeyed some biological imperative.
“Look at his arm,” Blair said.
There was a raised weal there that was a twin to the one they’d seen on Kimmerson’s face, but it was fainter.
Jim eased Darien into a more comfortable position. His breathing and pulse were slow, but they were steady enough, and there was no swelling around the sting. “I think the quicksilver must have protected him somehow,” he said with relief. “Maybe the sting couldn’t penetrate it fully.”
“And it’s cold,” Blair said. He was slumped against the side of the boat cradling his arm, and blood was still trickling from the cut on his head, but he seemed aware enough of what was going on. “Tropical plant—it’d recoil from the cold.”
Hobbes had his radio out and was calling for the chopper to pick them up ASAP, reiterating angrily that Darien needed medical assistance and needed it now. Jim heard the repeated answer that the choppers were grounded because of the storm sweeping in, just as he realised a black ominous cloud was appearing with surprising speed on the horizon.
The air which had been hot and still all day suddenly stirred with a breath from an oven, and the smooth sea began to ripple. Jim met Hobbes eyes in a shared moment of utter frustration. They both knew how fast, and how destructively, tropical storms could blow up. Reluctantly Hobbes turned the dinghy back towards their original landing place.
“We’ll be okay in the hut,” Jim said.
Jim was monitoring him continuously. “He’s not getting any worse. We’ve got pretty comprehensive first aid supplies. I think we can take care of him okay until the storm’s over and the chopper can get in.”
They were both watching the shore as the dinghy bobbed in over waves that were already getting rougher. The expanse of sand was clear of anything green at all. Jim knew the plants could get this far; that had to be how Kimmerson had died, but there didn’t seem to be any around at the moment. He wondered how long it would take them to move such a distance—and whether the helicopter would get there first.
Darien was a dead weight as they carried him into the suffocatingly hot interior of the concrete hut. Blair tried to limp along, but he was white with pain and when Jim returned and took his weight he sagged against him gratefully.
“Think I’ve broken my arm,” he mumbled.
“I’ll take care of it in a minute,” Jim said. “I just want to make sure we’ve plenty of fresh water in with us before the storm starts, and that everything else that matters is under cover.”
It only took him minutes to do that, but already hot gusts of air had begun to blow and he could smell the rain before he felt the first drops. He put the containers of water down in a corner as heavier rain started to clang on the metal roof. Hobbes, who’d been making the dinghy secure, came in at a run, and squatted down beside Darien.
“How is he?”
Jim had already checked Darien’s pulse again, with his fingers as well as his ears. It was still slow, but unchanged. “Looks like if you don’t get the full dose, the poison acts more like some kind of narcotic. His breathing’s okay, so maybe if we’re lucky he’ll just sleep it off.”
Bobby Hobbes settled with his back against the concrete wall, looking slightly relieved. “I’ll watch him.”
Jim turned his attention to Blair. Sentinel touch confirmed a probable break in his arm but the bone was still aligned, and there was a pneumatic splint in their first aid supplies. “Let’s get you more comfortable, Chief,” he said, raising his voice over the drumming rain.
Blair was looking at the open doorway, where torrential rain and spraying sand were beginning to come in. “Hadn’t we better close that?”
“The air might cool a bit in a few minutes; we’ll leave it till then. Anyway, I can’t use my hearing in this, so I’d like to keep a line of sight over to the edge of the beach.”
Blair seemed glad to think about anything rather than what Jim was doing with his arm. “Because of the Triffids?”
“Plants that can move… come on, Jim, they even made of film of that one.”
Jim tried to be as gentle as possible, and wished his sight didn’t show him so clearly how much whiter Blair was becoming. “Triffids would be more sci fi?”
“Yeah, but like I told you, these ideas for fiction are often rooted in something someone’s heard discussed or read about somewhere. At Rainier, I hear stuff over coffee, people’s ideas for research, rumours about other groups, stuff that would make a good few B movies.” He just about managed not to gasp, but he went silent as Jim finished with the splinting.
“All done,” Jim said quickly. “So, what were these Triffids? You think the writer guy had really heard of some research done out here?”
“Why not? I mean, I bet the native fisherman have some stories about the plants. And people must have landed here in the war.”
“You think these things predate the war?” Hobbes asked.
Jim had moved on to strapping Blair’s knee and cleaning the blood from his face. “The bones were that early,” he said, keeping the conversation up and hoping it might continue to distract Blair a little. “Doesn’t take a lot of imagination to guess where the rest of the life on this island went.”
“You might never know what had stung you,” Blair said. “If you survived, I mean. It’s probably unusual to see them as much in the open as we did. Kimmerson can’t have seen anything. Ow! Jim, what is that stuff?”
“Just making sure you don’t get any infection,” Jim said, disinfecting the cut on Blair’s forehead. “It’s hot, wet and dirty here -and your head’s strange enough, without some unusual bug colonising it. Anyway, did your book have any tips on eliminating Triffids?”
“That’s where the flamethrower will come in useful,” Hobbes said, and sentinel hearing detected just a trace of smugness. “But we’ll have to watch the fuel. How many of those things did you see, Ellison?”
“Maybe a dozen. But you shredded a few with the grenades.” He settled back and looked Blair over. The knee would need an X ray when they got back to civilization, but basically Blair came under the heading of slightly battered, not seriously damaged. He handed him a cup of water and a couple of painkillers. “You’ve no concussion, Chief, you might as well take these and get some sleep. There’s nothing to do except listen to the rain.”
“And watch for prowling killer plants,” Blair pointed out, but he swallowed the pills without argument, which confirmed Jim’s impression that things were hurting a lot.
Jim helped him lie down in a position which protected his arm. “You know, before I met you, I just dealt with plain ordinary criminals. You can write this report for Simon.”
“Right arm, remember,” Blair said, moving it incautiously and yelping.
Jim sat down next to him and rested a hand on his chest. “Don’t undo all my good work.”
Blair’s heartbeat was too fast under his palm, and his breathing still rapid from the pain, but both slowed a little as the painkillers kicked in. Jim stayed where he was, the concrete of the wall a solid defence against his back, his eyes trying, but failing, to filter through torrential tropical rain to the edge of the vegetation fringing the beach.
“Plants like rain,” Blair said, slightly sleepily now.
Jim had hoped for more disruptive wind, or maybe some hail. He imagined roots sliding through wet undergrowth, the rustling of the plants drowned out by the drumming on the roof. The storm was increasing its intensity, but in the thicker forest the plants would have some shelter.
He tried the radio, but there was too much interference, so he went back to watching the beach.
Hobbes was busy checking the valves on his weapon of choice. The air in the small building was stuffy and hot. Blair fell asleep, and Darien was still unconscious, though Jim thought he was slightly more restless. No helicopter would be able to fly for some time yet. There was nothing to do but wait.
It must have been some time during the night that the plants finally came. When the thundery gloom of the afternoon shifted into real darkness, without any easing of the storm, Jim had closed the metal door. It was soon stifling in the small building.
“We could blow out one of the blocks high up, to make a window,” Hobbes suggested.
Jim vetoed the use of explosives, but he agreed some sort of aperture would be useful. He dialled up his sense of touch and felt around the concrete blocks until he found one around his eye level that seemed slightly less securely embedded than the others.
After half an hour of frustration trying to remove it, he was about to swallow his pride and suggest that a very small, extremely controlled explosion might not be such a bad idea, but just then Hobbes finished with the flamethrower and came and lent his strength to Jim’s effort. With a grating sound and lot of dust, the block finally fell out and moist, marginally cooler air drifted in. The rain was still falling in solid sheets of water and it was pitch dark outside. Inside, a battery lantern gave them enough light without adding too much to the heat.
Jim sat down again next to Blair, and rested a hand on his forehead. It was damp with sweat, as they all were, but felt a healthy enough temperature, and Blair was sleeping peacefully. Darien, by contrast, was becoming more and more restless, although he wasn’t feverish.
“Think he’s trying to throw off the poison?” Hobbes asked an hour or so later, when the restlessness became more pronounced, and Darien started to shift and mutter in his sleep.
“Maybe. His life signs are fine, but he seems different…” Jim had been noticing it for a while, without really thinking about it. Now as he focussed his attention, he realised that it was because there was a sort of aggression in the slight movements and a harshness in the unintelligible mutterings that he didn’t associate with Darien.
Bobby Hobbes suddenly picked up the lantern and turned over Darien’s limp arm. “Damn,” he said.
He was looking at a tattoo which Jim had noticed before, a red and green snake—only it seemed to be a completely red snake now.
“In the freeze box,” Hobbes said. “In with the medicines that have to be kept cold. There’s a container marked ‘counteragent’ with a syringe in it.”
Jim had noticed it before. He took it out now, but didn’t hand it over. “I wouldn’t inject anything else into him,” he warned. “We don’t even know what the poison is, let alone how it will react with something else.”
“He’ll be a problem if he wakes up like this,” Hobbes said.
Hobbes was uncomfortable. “It’s like a side effect of the gland. If he uses a lot of quicksilver, a kind of reaction builds up. It makes him violent.”
“Doesn’t sound like Darien.”
“It’s not. He’s not like himself at all. Not nice for him when he gets over it…”
Jim hesitated. “He’s not awake yet,” he said. He was really reluctant to add anything else to the mix of foreign elements in Darien’s bloodstream. “I’ve got the syringe ready. We’ll deal with it if it happens.”
Hobbes nodded. He began to talking to the sleeping Darien very quietly, and once Jim had caught the words ‘you hang in there’ he dialled his hearing down to give them some privacy.
It was close to dawn, and the storm was definitely lessening when Darien suddenly sat up bolt upright and opened eyes that were completely bloodshot. Jim would have thought this was some effect of the poison, only Hobbes seemed to be expecting it.
“Ellison!” he said sharply, gripping Darien’s arms to keep him still.
To Jim’s amazement, Darien flung Hobbes away against the wall. The comatose poison victim was gone—and so was the laid back, likeable Darien Fawkes that Jim knew. This was a red-eyed dangerous stranger.
Hobbes, recovering quickly, kicked Darien’s feet from under him, and Jim hastily pinned him down. It took both of them to keep him in one place while Jim injected the counteragent. Darien’s back arched, his hands clawed at Jim, or air, or nothing, and then his eyes rolled back into his head and Hobbes was holding a dead weight once more.
Jim thought for a moment Darien had stopped breathing, but then he gave a convulsive gasp and started to take in air normally. Hobbes rubbed Darien’s arms and rested his chin on the sweat-soaked hair, but there was little chance Darien was aware of the comfort.
Jim was never ever going to complain about his senses again. Compared to this, he was the one who’d got the good breaks.
He hadn’t seen Blair wake up, and his hearing was still dialled down, but he wasn’t surprised the scuffle had disturbed him.
“Darien’s going to be…” he began, then realised Blair wasn’t looking at them at all. Sleepy eyed he was staring with horror at Jim’s window.
Outside it was dawn and the rain was thinning—and framed in the patch of light where the concrete block was gone, something green swayed and moved as it went past.
Jim moved cautiously forward so that he could see through the hole. A circle of the Triffids—Blair’s name seemed to fit—stood two or three deep around the shelter. They obviously couldn’t see, not in the normal sense, but whatever other ways they had of perceiving had led them effectively through the rainstorm to the right place. Jim hadn’t expected so many.
The flamethrower was beginning to look like a choice of genius…
Bobby Hobbes was back on the radio. “The chopper’s in the air and on its way. ETA just over an hour. I told him we’d give him further instructions when he got here.” He joined Jim, stretching up a little to peer out—Jim’s choice of eye height had been his own. The plants seemed to have rooted themselves a couple of metres back, waiting.
“They’ll move out of the way of a jet of fire,” Hobbes predicted confidently.
Jim was looking at the oil drums they’d hauled outside the first day they arrived. The sand was soaked, and oil floated on water.
“We could puncture some of the fuel containers first,” he pointed out.
“Yeah. I like it.”
They fired low at the base of the oil drums and the fuel spread to the nearest Triffids. They shifted, disliking the feel or the smell, and trailed it with them. Two or three stings lashed out, but struck uselessly against concrete. It showed that the plants could reach the doorway, though.
“I’ll stand back from the opening and let rip as I kick it open,” Hobbes said. He seemed to be viewing total war on the plant kingdom with relish.
Jim had seen Bobby’s meticulous check of pressure and valves, but if there was any problem… He took a piece of thin line and fixed it so he could pull the door shut again quickly if anything went wrong with the plan.
“Blair—are you up to taking care of Darien?”
Blair was pale and bruised and still catching up with events, but he shifted over next to Darien. Jim piled up what he could in front of them to provide some cover if any plant did break through, while Bobby Hobbes took up position with the flamethrower.
He and Jim looked at one another. As Jim understood it, the silent conversation went something like:
Sidekicks safely stowed? Check. Enough weaponry to cause mayhem? Check. An enemy even the most ardent vegetarian wouldn’t mind seeing incinerated? Check.
They were ready.
Jim fired from their ‘window’ at the three plants closest to the door, hitting the buttress roots and making them lurch back.
“Okay! Go!” he said.
He had to admit, though only to himself, that it was impressive. Bobby Hobbes managed to play the roles of knight to the rescue and fire breathing dragon both at once, as his jet of flame scorched out into the nearest plants and he stepped forward. As the first Triffids sizzled and stank, Hobbes swept the flame in a semi-circle, igniting the oil and making the plants that could still move shuffle back in a surprisingly rapid rocking retreat.
“Whoa!” Blair muttered, impressed, then with much too accurate a knowledge of his partner. “No, Jim, you can’t have one. But I must admit I’m glad Bobby brought it.”
Jim had his attention on the drums as much as the flame thrower.
“Back inside, Hobbes!” he shouted.
Hobbes backed in smartly, and Jim pulled the door shut with a slam just as the first of the drums exploded and flung burning droplets of oil far and wide.
Flying metal hit the front of the concrete shelter. Blair ducked down behind his makeshift barricade, sheltering Darien as best he could. As more explosions followed, and a piece of hot debris flew through the hole in the wall, Jim and Bobby Hobbes retreated to join them.
The explosions were followed by a high pitched whining wail that Jim could hear even with his senses dialled down to normal. Then, after a while, there was silence.
Jim returned to where he could see. All around the hut there were burnt leaves, charred roots, fragments of oozing stem, and a few more or less whole plants still twitching. A ragged fringe of moving green close to where the forest met the beach marked the retreat of the few plants still able to move.
“Some of those that are down might still be able to sting,” he warned.
“Not for long,” Hobbes said. The flame thrower flared into action again and he incinerated every remaining speck of green. He didn’t offer Jim a turn, either…
When the chopper finally landed, the evidence of fire was so widespread that the pilot thought the oil drums had been hit by lightning during the storm. They didn’t correct him. Hobbes hadn’t specified the nature of Darien’s injury when he called in, only that he’d been stung, and walking plants hadn’t featured in any of his later bulletins. Maybe he was keeping it classified; maybe, like Jim, he wanted more time to think out his account and recommendation. Anyway, their one goal for the moment was to get off the island and get Blair and Darien to a safe and comfortable medical facility.
The medic who’d come with the chopper confirmed Jim’s opinion that Darien was in no immediate danger, and approved the treatment he’d given both the injured men. Jim settled down next to Blair, but Blair was too sore and miserable, and too grateful to get off the island to care about the flight. He leaned against Jim and dozed, and no one exchanged more than the most necessary conversation in the air. Jim decided there was no need to warn Blair not to talk; he was hardly going to start complaining about killer plants to the accident and emergency staff, especially not when he was trying to play down a head injury.
When they arrived at the hospital, Darien was whisked away by Claire and the local experts, and Blair was scheduled for less urgent examination and treatment. Jim accompanied him as far as he could, then wandered off to find Hobbes and get a coffee while he waited.
“I haven’t put a report in yet,” Hobbes said, almost as if he was sounding Jim out.
“Work out the details together, later?”
Jim nodded. He suspected Bobby Hobbes’ thoughts were moving in the same direction as his own. “What did you say to Claire?”
“Nothing, so far. It wouldn’t have helped her identify the poison, but anyway, she says they think it’s more or less out of his system. He’ll be moved into a private room soon, and I think she’s getting Blair put in with him.”
“Good. How much were you planning to tell her?”
“She’s a great scientist,” Bobby said, slightly defensively. “You can’t blame her if she looks at it more like a scientist would. And she’s a good agent. If I tell her all of it…”
He stopped. Jim, interpreting this to mean Hobbes shared his reservations about unleashing the Triffids, even in the national interest, pointed out, “Well, Blair’s not naturally quiet about anything, and a sympathetic female audience is only going to encourage him.”
Hobbes abandoned his coffee. “I hadn’t thought of that. We’d better find out what room they’ll be moved to.”
They were just too late. The hospital had moved with speed and efficiency. By the time they tracked down the room and gained entry, Darien and Blair were already both there, Darien sleeping off the after effects of everything in his system—and Blair describing in multi-coloured detail the day the plant kingdom hit back.
“That’s fascinating,” Claire said, smiling a welcome to Jim and Bobby as she went to take a blood sample from Darien. “That would explain the alkaloid nature of the poison. I thought at first it might be from an adapted amphibian. So someone at some time had actually developed these plants. I’ve heard the possibility talked about, but only in the context of research abandoned long ago. I had no idea anyone had made any progress. Movement and toxicity… that’s very impressive. The weapon potential is quite developed. I wonder if Chrysalis knew what they were looking for. What did the Official say when you reported to him, Bobby? This could be quite a coup for him.”
It was odd how so many of the more attractive girls Jim met contemplated mayhem and destruction without batting an eyelash.
“I haven’t been in touch yet,” Hobbes said.
Claire looked at him sympathetically and with what she obviously imagined was understanding. “I’ve told you, Darien’s going to be fine. Really. You know how it affects him normally if he goes into quicksilver madness before we get the counteragent into him. He’ll wake up in a few hours with a headache and probably some itching where the sting hit him. Go and let the Official know you’ve found something that will let him negotiate a huge budget increase!”
“I’ll come with you,” Jim told Hobbes. “I ought to put in some kind of report as well.”
He was aware of Blair trying hard not to look taken aback at being abandoned as soon as this. He sent him what he hoped was a glance that conveyed concern, macho friendship and a promise to be back soon and explain. Blair looked seriously alarmed by it. Giving up, Jim just followed Bobby Hobbes out.
“The Official’s going to love the idea of sponsoring the world’s first mass-murdering pot plant,” Hobbes muttered.
“Difficult weapon to control,” Jim said.
“Worse than mines once it gets into an area,” Hobbes thought aloud. “At least mines don’t move.”
“Or grow. Or spread. If these things seed and the seeds carry…”
It wasn’t hard to imagine a legacy of killers left behind after every jungle war. The plants had thrived on the island, and every living creature had been wiped out.
“I’ll have to report in what we found,” Hobbes said. “But after that…” He looked at Jim as if trying to decide what to say. “I’ve always served my country. I know about shades of grey.”
Jim nodded. “These things have the potential of an uncontained virus, though. No one would be safe. Not our country, not anyone’s.”
Hobbes looked at him thoughtfully. “I was thinking after we’ve finished here I might go call on that old friend of mine.”
“The one who stocks grenades and flamethrowers?”
“He has a lot of other stuff too.”
Jim could think of one possible option. It had been a big island. “Stuff left over from wars like ‘Nam?”
“You got it.”
“What about transport?”
“He’s got contacts there, too.”
Jim looked at his watch. It was already well into the afternoon. “He could arrange a night flight?”
“I thought we’d aim to arrive just before dawn.”
They left it there. Discussing it in any less elliptical way seemed a bad idea somehow; at a stretch, what they were thinking of could be called treasonable. Jim certainly didn’t want to have to explain it to anyone.
It was odd how easy it was to slip back into an undercover frame of mind, even with Blair. He found himself cheerfully telling Claire that he and Hobbes were going to spend the evening with an old friend of Bobby’s, catch up with some of the night life they’d missed that first evening, and when he could see that Blair also believed him, he was simply satisfied he’d been convincing. His conscience kicked him for that a moment later, especially when he could see that Blair was slightly surprised—and trying hard not to look hurt—that Jim was so readily taking off for an evening’s entertainment.
Hobbes lingered a minute longer next to Darien’s bed. “When do you think he’ll wake up?”
“Probably not before morning,” Claire said, looking at the monitors. “He’s fine though; the poison’s just about cleared his system. You two go and enjoy Hawaii.”
Jim didn’t enjoy the night, but he had to admit that Hobbes’ friend came through for them in a way that was quite impressive if you looked at it as a covert agent rather than a cop. He had a lot of reservations about the illegality of what they were doing, but none of them had anything to do with the end result. That, he could only feel a sort of bleak satisfaction about.
They were back on Hawaii in time to make an early visit to Darien and Blair in the hospital room, and he hoped any signs of red-eyed tiredness would be put down to the riotous evening they were supposed to have spent. Claire was absent when they slipped quietly in; Darien and Blair were asleep.
Jim sat down next to Blair’s bed, ran a hasty sentinel style check that didn’t find anything wrong that hadn’t been wrong before, and stretched out his legs to doze there, waking when Blair’s heartbeat speeded up. He leaned over. “Chief?”
Blair opened his eyes, and drew a deep breath. “Jim?”
Blair peered around blearily. “Good that it is morning, anyway,” he agreed after a moment. “I’ve spent the whole night trying to get away from marauding plants. You’d better not have brought me flowers.”
A groan from the next bed drew their attention and had Bobby reaching for the call button. Darien was finally waking up. His eyes were back to normal, Jim saw with relief, though they were screwing up as if his head hurt and his first words were, “Oh crap. What hit me?”
Bobby held the button without pressing it. “You don’t remember?”
Darien stared at him, then memory kicked in. “Psycho plants? I was hoping that was just a nightmare. Please tell me there’s no chance Chrysalis will get hold of those things.” He rubbed his face irritably where the sting mark remained. “Ow. I feel like crap.”
Jim could see that Hobbes was looking more relieved at every grumble.
Darien rolled over a little and saw Blair and Jim. “Hey guys. Did we win?”
“Hobbes did,” Jim said. “One man and his flamethrower…”
Darien winced slightly. Maybe he thought Hobbes didn’t need any encouragement, or maybe his head was just hurting. Claire whisked in, perhaps alerted by some remote monitor, and gave a slightly reproachful glance to the unpressed call button in Bobby’s hand.
“Darien,” she said warmly. Jim smothered a smile as he saw Darien instantly take on a look of pained and pathetic suffering that needed caring female attention. Blair could project the same look to perfection. The only time Jim had ever called him on it he took the comment as an acknowledgment of his talents rather than a cause to be embarrassed.
Claire was kind, soothing and efficient, but Jim was more interested by the bit of news she dropped towards Hobbes. “Eberts has arrived Bobby. Did you know? He’s going to supervise the team going out to the island to collect samples.”
“Hope the official’s sanctioned armour plating,” Darien muttered. “Sooner them than me.”
“Me too,” Hobbes said, a bit too emphatically for Jim’s liking. “I never want to see the place again.”
Definitely overplaying his hand. Luckily, though Claire was clearly a very bright girl, she didn’t have Jim’s habits of suspicion. She whisked off again to liaise with Eberts, and Jim breathed a sigh of relief in time with Blair and Darien’s twin sighs of disappointment.
Blair shifted a little uncomfortably in his bed.
“Want a hand, Chief?” Jim asked. “If it’s the bathroom…”
“No, no, thanks man, I appreciate the no-bridge-too-far approach but it’s not that. I was just thinking about what Claire said. They’re really going to get samples today? I mean, doesn’t someone have to think it through, consider the consequences…”
“The consequences of us not being first to get our hands on a completely new weapon? How much thinking did you imagine they’d do?” Darien asked cynically.
“But those plants—they’d wiped out everything on the island. It’s incredibly lucky they were contained like that. You could never use them on a land mass without putting all the life there at risk in the long run. We don’t even know how they spread.”
“Maybe they grow faster if they have more chance to be carnivores,” Darien offered gloomily. “Isn’t blood and bonemeal some kind of super fertiliser?”
“You can imagine every jungle on the globe being infested,” Blair said, beginning to see the enormity of it. “Jim, you must see that.”
“I see that,” Jim agreed.
Darien looked at him and Hobbes. “But orders are orders,” he said, sounding more depressed than angry.
Jim looked at his watch. It was still quite early, but what with all the satellites up there monitoring the world, to say nothing of legitimate flights…
He turned on the small TV.
Their island had made the lead story, with ‘breaking news’ all over it. Terrorism? Some bizarre attack on the archipelago? An explosion of abandoned military supplies? There were experts speculating, and a government spokesman vowing everything would be done to get to the bottom of this crime, and warnings to everyone not to approach the island because of the toxic nature of the air above it.
The undiluted tons of mixed weedkillers and defoliants they’d sprayed the island with could still be seen as a sort of evil hanging miasma under which the foliage was already failing. In full daylight, it looked like a warzone. In fact, it was one, and Jim didn’t think the enemy could have survived. They’d put enough onto that small acreage to have defoliated a good sized rainforest. It would be soaking into the water and the soil, and he was probably going to have quite a lot of fish on his conscience as collateral damage, but he thought it was worth it. No one was going to go near the island without a chemical suit for a long long time, and any covert attempt to get there and remove some dying plant specimen surely wouldn’t be attempted under the eyes of the world’s press. With any luck, when Chrysalis’ boat was found, they’d get the blame. And the Triffids should have become extinct, like a lot of much more deserving species.
Blair, who’d been staring mesmerised at the screen, turned to glance at Jim. The fact he didn’t ask any of the obvious questions made it clear enough he understood what Jim and Bobby had done, and the enormity of it.
Darien looked at Hobbes silently for a moment, then just nodded. “Good call,” he said softly.
“Sorry, big guy,” Blair said equally softly to Jim. “I should have known. When it comes to it, you really know how to ride to the rescue.”
There was only one answer to that, especially as Jim wanted to get away even from these slightest allusions to the subject.
“Hey, does that mean I can have a flamethrower after all, Chief?”
~ End ~